Ana Tijoux: the political and the personal
Splicing social observations with intimate reflections has become a forte of the Chilean singer-MC, who’s performing Saturday at California Plaza in downtown L.A.
Two and a half years ago, Ana Tijoux tore up the rule book of Latin hip-hop with her breakout record, “1977.” The title alluded to Tijoux’s generation of Chileans whose parents had fled the brutal 17-year regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and had gone into European exile.
Tijoux’s equally ambitious follow-up, “La Bala” (The Bullet), released in January in the United States, gave a sympathetic shout-out to Chile’s recent wave of youth-led street protests demanding education reforms and attacking the country’s growing gulf between rich and poor.
So when a Skype call finally reached her one morning as she walked the streets of Santiago, it was easy to picture Tijoux racing off to a political rally or en route to a benefit concert for victims of the dark days of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Instead, Tijoux said, she was shopping for a birthday gift for her father, relishing what Latin Americans call la vida cotidiana: the pleasant, unremarkable events that enrich our mundane lives.
“I think daily life is the most beautiful and wonderful thing that anyone can have,” Tijoux said, speaking in Spanish. “I think we live in a world where the most important thing is daily life: sharing a space with your family, making meals, being with your people. It’s not only the idea of privacy, it’s the beauty of the moment, at a time in the world when everything goes really fast — too fast.”
Splicing political observations with intimate personal reflections has become a forte of the 35-year-old singer-MC, who’ll lead a bill with Montreal’s Nomadic Massive on Saturday night at California Plaza in downtown L.A. as part of the Grand Performances outdoor concert series.
Tijoux can lay down tongue-twisting social commentaries with as much panache as any of her macho counterparts. As a member of the influential hip-hop group Makiza in the late 1990s, her sharp-minded rapping helped revive Santiago’s moribund music culture in the liberating post-Pinochet era.
But what sets Tijoux apart in the male-dominated hip-hop world is her lush sense of melody, her sensual, jazz-infused phrasing, and her penchant for introspective disclosure over bombastic self-promotion. Her albums brim with witty confessionals about her own personal and career struggles, such as “Crisis de un MC” (Crisis of an MC), and many of her songs sound as if Tijoux is acting out pages from her diary.
“I think it’s important to believe that within hip-hop I have the ability to explore and express other musical forms,” she said.
Chile — first as a distant abstraction, then as a bustling reality — lies at the core of Tijoux’s artistic identity. She said she still draws on the example of such Chilean folk singers as Violeta Parra and Victor Jara, whom she calls “our greatest poets.”
“It’s music you listen to as a child and that you don’t let go of listening,” she said. “It accompanies you for your entire life through adolescence and adulthood.”
Yet as a child, most of what Tijoux knew about her troubled homeland came through family dinner-table discussions. The rest of the time she was immersed in the lively world of France’s immigrant-refugee community.
Her mother, a social worker, sometimes would bring Tijoux along on her treks through Paris’ streets. Her truck-driver father would take her on trips across the continent, exposing her to different cultures.
Among Tijoux and her adolescent playmates, hip-hop became a lingua franca that united people across different backgrounds and languages. She became enamored of hip-hop-centric artists, particularly those such as Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest who used rap as a doorway into deeper melodic realms and away from gangsta cliches.
“Bling makes me laugh, because we don’t see it in Chile,” she told The Times in 2010.
After her family moved back to Chile in 1993, Tijoux fell in with Santiago’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. But it was her singing abilities that eventually would lead her to be sought out by artists such as the Argentine electronic-tango ensemble Bajofondo and the Mexican pop-rocker Julieta Venegas, who enlisted Tijoux to accompany her hit song “Eres Para Mi.”
“I’ve never really considered Ana Tijoux a political performer,” says Tomas Cookman, owner-founder of Nacional Records, the North Hollywood-based label that has released Tijoux’s two last albums.
“But I think also living in Chile and having a young child, you just can’t help but be affected by what’s happening politically. Especially in a country like Chile, where for so many years people really did not have the luxury to go out and protest the way they’re doing now or even speak the way they’re doing now.”
Certainly “La Bala” doesn’t refrain from political outspokenness. The album’s explosive title tune has been widely interpreted as an outraged reply to a student protester’s shooting death. Its second track, “Shock,” registers solidarity with the youthful street activists.
“I think what’s going on in Chile is affecting all the arts,” Tijoux said. “I think it’s going to produce the effect of an art that’s more reflective, an art that debates, an art that criticizes, and not only in music but in dance, in visual art, in sculpture, in theater.”
By contrast, another song on the new album, “Quizás” (Maybe), is a beautifully languorous R&B-rap account of a meeting with an old friend that prompts thoughts about paths not taken.
Featuring an English-language backing vocal by Detroit-based chanteuse Monica Blaire, “Quizás” showcases the album’s funky production mix by Studio A Recording Inc. in Detroit. Surrounded on several tracks by a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) and a miniature horn section, Tijoux taps into a jazz-diva mode quite different from her urban-provocateur persona.
Tijoux also recruited several prominent guest artists, including Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler and Brazilian hip-hop/samba fusionist Curumin, to lend varied South American textures to the new record.
What makes such experimental blending possible is Tijoux’s verbal agility. Some Latin American MCs tie their tongues in knots trying to force Spanish words and phrases into hip-hop cadences that were cut to fit Bronx and South Central speech patterns.
Tijoux has no inhibitions about stretching out vowels or caressing syllables to make her wordplay mesh organically with her emotions. Reviewing “La Bala” for The Times in January, critic Ernesto Lechner described the record as “perhaps the most sumptuous album that rap en español has known.”
Tijoux said she has no artistic plans beyond her current tour and seems content to let her next disc come when it may. Then, as the Skype conversation drew to a close, she apologized for the Internet hiccups that broke up the interview several times over the 5,500 miles between Los Angeles and Santiago.
“Vale la pena,” the reporter told her — “The pain was worth the trouble.”
Tijoux laughed. “The pain,” she replied, as if speaking about something else, “is always worth it.”